Asahidake is Hokkaido’s highest mountain so no surprise it gets plenty of powder

Written by on September 16, 2017 in Japan - Comments Off on Asahidake is Hokkaido’s highest mountain so no surprise it gets plenty of powder

Hokkaido’s highest mountain at 2,290m, Asahidake offers an experience a world away from Niseko’s hustle and bustle.
Get past the ‘no patrol, no sweep’ sign and you’re often on your own, especially after each tram (cable car/ropeway) load disgorges and disappears. Depending on the day there may be a bit of morning frenzy when day trippers get over from Furano, but stay at the base and you’re virtually guaranteed your fill of fresh lines and a total getaway experience.
Story Owain Price, pics Owain Price & James Mutter

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Love at first sight, or actually love sight unseen, was my reaction to Asahidake, a mountain on my must-ski list for years. It wasn’t till the afternoon of day two here that the clouds parted, it stopped snowing, and we actually got to see the steaming horseshoe shape peak in all its glory. No wonder the local indigenous people call it the ‘Playground of the Gods’ (Kamui Mitara) – it’s a magical place, in a beautiful setting.
The drive up from Asahikawa through the snow laden pine forest of Daisetsuzan National Park got us thinking something special was at the end of the road, though as snow fell constantly you couldn’t see much. A few hotels straddle the road to the ropeway base at 1100m, not much lower than the top of the lifts at Niseko. Here you add 500m vert on the only lift, the ropeway that runs every 20 minutes, and almost 700m more by skinning to the peak – so it’s not surprising the snow quality is superb.
We checked into the Bearmonte Hotel, the closest to the base less than 100m up the road, and hit the cable car. There was no one around, only a few cars in the carpark, and no one else on the same lift for our first run. Visibility was minimal, but with Naoki Shimobo, owner of Asahikawa’s Leala snowboard & surf shop, and local pro boarder Takahiko Taniguchi leading the way, it was a full tilt charge into the unknown for James and I trying to keep up.
The terrain drops sharply with a steeper section, a flat run out you need to keep speed up on, then another shorter steeper bit, depending whether you head skier’s right or left and how wide you go.
We lapped all afternoon, getting fresh tracks everytime. It’s hard to actually make succesive cable cars after the little hike out from the top station and allowing for the flat sections, so catching one every 40 minutes is standard, which means about 6 laps in a 4 hour session, sort of a cat skiing pace for similar quality snow.
It was too socked in to see the peak, never mind hike higher, so we put in a full afternoon lapping the woods then skied back to the hotel door of the ‘Bear’ for a well earned onsen, a few beers and a mega buffet dinner. There is no nightlife at all, it’s blissfully quiet, and you feel in the middle of nowhere, probably because you are.
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Another Hokkaido Ground Hog day dawned – more snow falling – so I made the effort to be on first cable car. Our gun boarders had left, my buddy James was sick, so I was alone, only person on the first lift! Which was exciting and unnerving at the same time. Visibility was still crap, but I knew my way well enough to hit lines not too far from the single groomed tracks either side that are the entire ‘trail map’ content. Back for lap 2 the day trippers from Furano had arrived by the mini van load, including John Morrell from Journey Into Japan with an Aussie tour group doing one of his famous Tokachi Mountains backcountry safaris, and some seriously well equipped Euros and Americans.
But it hardly mattered, a couple of laps later the cable car was half full as the day’s people rush spaced out. The snow stopped, the clouds broke, and I finally saw Asahidake (volcanoes are like that – you can spend a week, or more, at Mt Ruapehu and never see it for example). So I skied back to the hotel and dragged James out to seize the moment. We did a lap in the sun to warm him up, then came back to do some skinning. Sizing up the peak, I’m estimating 90 minutes minimum to get there, and with a suffering buddy and the prospect of clouds closing in again it looked too much. We opted for a short, easy skin up to the first steaming fumeroles. These massive sulphur caked vents look spectacular in the snow, and would have made a great backdrop for pictures, but the mist rolled in on my effort, and while I waited for James to go the wind changed and stinky steam enveloped me. Visions of that Pierce Brosnan volcano movie flashed into my brain, so I skated out to clear air. But not much clearer, it was socking in again fast. At least we had hiked high enough to hit a wide line down still untracked late in the day.
Next morning it was snowing lightly, I made first cable car again, this time shared with half a dozen well equipped fellow skiers/boarders also staying locally, and the pattern repeated itself – Furano van loads arrive, a few other cars with locals, but no big deal.
However it can get busy and would be frustrating if you had to wait out a cable car, especially weekends, so our tip is to actually stay there midweek, not day trip, and spend at least 3 nights. Our ‘ski in’ hotel worked out to $120 or so for 2 for a very nice room, with massive breakfast and dinner and onsen. It’s not much more than the ‘cheap’ pension down the road for 4 star luxury, because these hotels struggle in winter except on a couple of holidays.
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If you do hit it when it’s busier get the single ticket and just go hike. Tim Macartney-Snape, who takes time out from business and mountain climbing to guide here for Journey Into Japan, tells me 45 minutes is his time from lift top station to summit with fit clients, so you can get a lot of vertical in at that pace. He recommends cautious route selection – the mix of heavy snowfall, wind and sun exposure, steeps, cornices and all those fumeroles makes a dangerous cocktail up top, so a guide is a good idea. The guides based at the Bear Monte Hotel are the resident experts, and they rent locally made Field Earth brand swallow tail powder boards and convex pow skis that look more like a split board than a pair of skis. We had a shot on these on our last morning, they felt skaty weird on a windblown ice patch I hit out from the top of the lift, but were surf city in the powder.
As for the two groomed runs, one involves an uphill walk for 30 metres lower down and the other requires a 50m slight incline walk to get started, so neither is much good for the unfit. They both turn into cruisy blue runs, so if your partner/friends don’t ski at your level that’s all there is for them. The season starts late and runs late, March and April are great months to visit.
I can’t wait to go back and have a shot at skinning to the summit, and get some shots of it, though a 45 minute ascent is strictly ‘in your dreams’ for me.

Asahidake The Ticket
Getting to Asahidake: Asahikawa Airport is only 45 mins, Asahikawa City and Furano both an hour or bit more.
To Stay: Best & closest place to stay is Bearmonte Hotel (pictured) ski back to the door. Book at
www.agoda.com/asia/japan/hokkaido/asahidake_manseikaku_hotel_bear_monte.html
Or under same owners the more exclusive Deer Valley hotel is just down the road.
more info facebook.com/HokkaidoPowderBelt
Guided trips & at/tele ski and avi gear hire from Furano journeyintojapan.com.au Furano Snow Tours
Asahidake Stats: snowfall 9m top lift 1,608m base 1100m vert 500m lifts 1, goes every 20 mins
terrain • 50% adv/exp • 40% int day pass $¥4000 (2013)
j.asahidakepeakjames

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